Sunday, May 9, 2021

Sermon: “Permission to Be Bad: The Myth of the Growing Edge”, Exodus 4:10-16/Romans 12:3-9 (May 9, 2021)


We’re quickly approaching the end of the Easter season. Next week we’ll be celebrating the Ascension (when Jesus is taken up into heaven and the disciples are officially promoted to apostles) and the week after that, Pentecost. So today represents the final days of “training” for Jesus’ followers. Sounds like a good time for a performance review, don’t you think?

Have you ever been subjected to one of these? They’re most common in the business sector, but they’ve become pretty universal in most industries these days. Performance reviews tend to be somewhat nerve-wracking and uncomfortable for everyone, but they ARE an important part of any work environment. After all, communication is key to teamwork, and it’s healthy to take stock of what else we can do to effectively contribute to the team’s goals.

However, there is one aspect of performance reviews that I’d prefer be retired permanently, and that’s the idea of the “growing edge”. This term is supposed to describe an aspect of your “work performance” that has “room for improvement”; in reality, it’s a euphemism for a professional “weakness”. It’s supposed to be framed as constructive criticism—an opportunity for you to cultivate a new strength—but the only thing anyone ever hears when informed of their growing edge is, “You’re really bad at this. Do better.” Unless you have an unusually thick skin, the “growing edge” conversation can ignite feelings of shame and inadequacy, even if it’s not the intention of the person giving the feedback.

During these “COVID times”, we’ve been unable to “outsource” a lot of what makes our lives work smoothly, so we’ve all had to pick up the slack in one way or another. Whether it’s figuring out new technology, or how to stay in touch with family and friends without being able to meet in person, or working from home while simultaneously making sure your kids attend virtual school, or completely reinventing the way your job gets done, we’ve all had to do something we’ve never done before, and I’ve got to tell you—not a single one of us have made it through the past year without discovering some “growing edge” that we didn’t know we had. And I suspect that many (if not all) of us have felt bad about it at some point.

Can you imagine Jesus having a frank discussion with his disciples about their weakn—excuse me, growing edges, as he prepares to ascend into heaven? “Okay, you’re all valued employees, but there are a few things you need to work on. First of all, you’re a little bit dense. You need to go back and spend some time thinking about what I’ve taught you. Also, humility seems to be a problem; all this discussion of ‘who’s the greatest’ is creating a bit of a hostile work environment. And to be honest I’m gonna need you to demonstrate better commitment to our ministry. I couldn’t help but notice that you all disappeared during my trial, and some even denied that they knew me—I’m looking at you, Peter!” Sure, they’re valid criticisms, but I suspect that this sort of conversation would have put the disciples on edge just as they were supposed to “go and make disciples of all nations”. If they were fixated on improving these aspects of themselves, they wouldn’t have much energy left over for evangelism.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s a fallacy to believe that being a faithful disciple means being good at everything. God didn’t create us that way. That’s why Paul uses the “parts of a body” metaphor so often in his letters: “We have many parts in one body but the parts don’t all have the same function…individually, we belong to each other.” We each have different gifts to offer. When we strive for absolute perfection, we are, in some ways, breaking TWO separate commandments: God has measured out “a portion of faith” to each of us; our insistence on trying to claim more than our share is both covetous (in our desire for that which doesn’t belong to us) and idolatrous (in our defiance of God’s will).

God is ALL about relationships, and if we were all good at everything, that would completely subvert God’s intention for creation. If we were good at everything, we wouldn’t need other people, and we CERTAINLY wouldn’t need Jesus. We’d find ourselves drawn into perpetual rivalry with the rest of humanity. We’d wind up isolated from the divine and from one another…which, to some theologians (including myself), is the literal definition of hell. And I think we all recognize that this is NOT what God wants for us.

Our deficiencies aren’t enemies to be conquered. In fact, Paul BRAGS about his weakness in 2 Corinthians,[1] because it allows space for Christ’s power to flow in his life. Our personal shortcomings are themselves a gift, in that they leave space for the strengths of others to bless our lives, forcing us to rely on one another and drawing us together in sacred community. While that may sound like a nightmare to some, it’s the only way that we can hope to truly know God or to see the kingdom of heaven.

Like a puzzle piece, each of us was created with knobs and holes, strengths and weaknesses. The strengths don’t make us better than other puzzle pieces, and the weaknesses don’t make us worse. What they do is make us fit together perfectly. We’re MEANT to trust others to “fill the gaps” in our abilities, so that all of us can come together in the beautiful image of what God longs for the world to be. We need to embrace our weaknesses as opportunities for others to step in and play their part.

Consider this divine permission to be bad at things.

This doesn’t mean, however, that God is offering divine permission to only do the things that we’re good at. Not at all. The Church isn’t meant to be our personal comfort zone. We’re supposed to be in the business of changing lives and turning the world upside down, which is a BIG job and is never going to be a comfortable process. No, God still calls us to do the things that we’re not good at…but God promises that we don’t HAVE to be good at them and that we never have to do them alone.

In our reading today, Moses is determined to get out of a job that believes he’s not qualified for. When God tells him, “I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt,” Moses makes no fewer than three separate excuses, each of which is met with a decisive rebuttal from God. Finally, Moses makes a fourth and final attempt to abdicate this responsibility, with the argument that is perhaps weighing most heavily on his mind: “But God, I’ve never been able to speak well. I’ll be so bad at this!” God’s response isn’t to miraculously grant Moses the gift of eloquence, although that probably would have been the easiest solution. Instead, God tells Moses, “*I* will help you speak, and *I* will teach you what you should say.” It’ll be okay. I will be with you. Lean on me.

But Moses can’t overcome the shame of this weakness: “Please, Lord, just send someone else!” So God says, “Look; you can bring your brother Aaron with you. He can speak very well. Lean on him, and I’ll be with both of you.” In other words, “I KNOW you’re bad at speaking. But that’s not going to stop you from delivering my people from slavery. It just means you can’t do it alone. So instead of just giving up, ASK FOR HELP!” That finally seems to get through to Moses, and, well, the rest is history. In fact, Moses goes on to ask for help at several points over the course of his ministry with the Israelites. Strangely enough, it turns out that God knows what God is doing.

But embracing our weaknesses requires that we also amplify and use our strengths as much as possible. God’s kingdom is no place for false humility. If its infrastructure is going to work, if the puzzle is going to hold together, we need every weakness to be met with a strength—and whether you believe it or not, your strengths (whatever they might be) are essential. What would have happened if Aaron had declined to help Moses because he thought his ability to speak wasn’t really all that great?

And conversely, what if Moses had just passed the ENTIRE job over to Aaron? Moses may not have been a good speaker, but he was an incredible leader. If he’d accepted Aaron’s help but discounted his own strengths, the book of Exodus would have contained a lot of beautiful speeches, but few results. Aaron wasn’t the right person to inspire the Israelites and sustain them through their time in the wilderness. Moses was. God knew it, and so God brought those two matching puzzle pieces together in ministry for a perfect fit.

What weaknesses have you been so focused on overcoming that you haven’t been able to see who God is encouraging you to lean on? What divine call have you resisted because you’re convinced that your weakness precludes your success? What strengths are you withholding because you don’t think they matter? What opportunity to share God’s love might you be missing because you’re focusing more on what you can’t do instead of on what you can do with help? What does your piece of the puzzle look like, and where does it fit?

Don Clifton, the “father of strengths-based psychology”, famously asked, “What would happen if we studied what was RIGHT with people versus what’s wrong with people?” He found over the course of his work that the most objectively successful people focus on their strengths and work around their weaknesses, instead of trying to fix them. Moses and Paul probably could have told him that. Weaknesses aren’t flaws; they’re an integral part of who we are. They’re gifts and opportunities to strengthen God’s family.

So I say, let’s do away with the idea of the “growing edge”, at least in the Church. Let’s not despise our weaknesses; there are too many other things more worthy of our hate: evil, for one, and cruelty, and injustice. But not our weaknesses. They are what draw us together, and that makes them holy. Hold on to what is good. Delight in your strengths, embrace your weaknesses, and fill that spot in the puzzle that only you can fill. Amen.

[1] 12:9.

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